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Assessing the Boston Red Sox’s outlook heading into the offseason

The Red Sox are trying to bounce back from a last-place finish in the AL East, but they face the possible departure of a longtime star.

Guaranteed contracts

  • Trevor Story, IF: $120M through 2027 (includes $5M buyout of $25M club option for 2028; Story can opt out after 2025 season)
  • Xander Bogaerts, SS: $60M through 2025, $20M club option for 2026 (Bogaerts can opt out of contract after 2022 season)
  • Chris Sale, SP: $55M through 2024, with $20M club option for 2025 ($20M of guaranteed money is deferred; Sale can opt out of contract after 2022 season)
  • Eric Hosmer, 1B: $39M through 2025 (Padres covering all but the annual minimum MLB salary; Hosmer can opt out of contract after 2022 season)
  • Garrett Whitlock, SP/RP: $17.75M through 2026 (includes $1M buyout of $8.25M club option for 2027; Red Sox also have a $10.5M club option for 2028, with a $500K buyout)
  • Enrique Hernandez, IF/OF: $10M through 2023
  • Matt Barnes, RP: $9.75M through 2023 (includes $2.25M buyout of $8M club option for 2024)

Option decisions

  • James Paxton, SP: $13M club options for both the 2023 and 2024 seasons, to be exercised at the same time; if Red Sox decline the options, Paxton has a $4M player option for 2023
  • Tommy Pham, OF: $6M mutual option for 2023 ($1.5M buyout)

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2023 salaries, via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free agents

With a 78-84 record in baseball’s most competitive division, the Red Sox suffered their fifth last-place finish in the last 11 seasons. It is the latest dip in a strangely inconsistent era for the franchise, as the Sox have also captured two World Series titles from five postseason appearances in that same 11-year stretch. The presence of certain tentpole stars (i.e. David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers) has helped the Sox make these quick turnarounds, and yet that stability isn’t as apparent heading into 2023.

Bogaerts’ fate is the biggest question facing the Red Sox as the offseason begins, as the shortstop is expected to test free agency and opt out of the final three years and $60M on his contract. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and members of the ownership group have all said both publicly and privately that they want to retain Bogaerts, the shortstop wasn’t dealt at the trade deadline, and Bogaerts has repeatedly stated that his preference would be to remain in Boston. However, the Sox reportedly made a curiously low offer (one additional year and $30M added onto Bogaerts’ current deal) during spring training extension talks, and they already seemed to be laying the groundwork for Bogaerts’ departure by signing All-Star shortstop Trevor Story last offseason.

Since free agency doesn’t officially open until five days after the World Series is over, the Sox still have some time to negotiate with Bogaerts and agent Scott Boras. While it isn’t totally uncommon to see notable players work out new extensions this close to the open market, the air of finality that has seemed to hang over Bogaerts’ Red Sox tenure creates plenty of doubt that a new deal can indeed be reached, before or after the Sox have to start bidding against other teams for Bogaerts’ services.

Between Bogaerts and outright free agents like J.D. Martinez and Nathan Eovaldi, this offseason could mark something of the end of an era in Boston, especially after longtime catcher Christian Vazquez was already dealt to the Astros at the trade deadline. That said, the Vazquez deal was the only rebuild-esque move made at the deadline, as the Sox otherwise kept most of their veterans and even added more experienced help in Tommy Pham and Eric Hosmer.

That attempt at a last-minute push for a wild-card berth well fell short, leaving the Sox slightly above the luxury-tax threshold (and the only one of the six tax-paying teams to not reach the playoffs). The actual $900K in taxes is a relative drop in the bucket, but the Red Sox now face added penalties in regards to qualifying-offer free agents this winter. Should the Sox sign a QO-rejecting free agent, they’ll have to give up $1M in international bonus pool money, as well as their second- and fifth-highest selections in the 2023 draft. Also, the compensatory pick that the Red Sox would themselves receive if a QO-rejecting free agent — like Bogaerts or Eovaldi — signed elsewhere will now fall after the fourth round of the draft.

The luxury-tax penalty adds another wrinkle to a busy offseason for Bloom. It is worth mentioning that Bloom’s immediate predecessors in the job (Dave Dombrowski and Ben Cherington) were each fired after four years or less, even though both had overseen a World Series champion during their tenure. While ownership may be more patient this time around, Bloom has thus far sandwiched a trip to the 2021 ALCS between two last-place finishes, so he could be facing extra pressure to get the Red Sox back to contention.

In fairness, the Sox were a lot more competitive than your usual last-place team, and they might have been contenders in any other division. (Boston had an ugly 26-50 record against AL East opponents but were a dominant 52-34 against non-division clubs.) The Red Sox might’ve made more of a charge in 2022 if they’d had had only an average number of injuries, yet the AL East is so competitive that the Sox can hardly just run things back and hope for better health next year, especially with so much key personnel slated for free agency.

All of the potential departures do leave a lot of open payroll space heading into the winter, and although Bloom is the CBO of a team that surpassed the luxury-tax threshold, splashy moves haven’t really been Bloom’s forte. Story’s six-year, $140M deal is far and away the largest contract given to a free agent during Bloom’s tenure, as the Red Sox have mostly preferred to look for value in shorter-term free-agent deals and lower-profile trades and acquisitions.

Could this be the year that Bloom truly splurges on the open market? Signing Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander would be a big way of upgrading the pitching staff, or making a push for Aaron Judge would add more fuel to the fire of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry. While Bloom’s front office has routinely at least checked in with many of the top free agents of the last few seasons, his propensity to swing trades is another avenue for roster improvement.

For instance, Boston has the financial flexibility to take on a pricey contract from a team looking to cut payroll — whether that big contract belonged to a player the Sox are targeting, or a player whose deal the Sox are willing to eat in order to obtain another player they really want. With so much money coming off the books, the Red Sox might be able to reload their roster and still stay under next year’s $232M tax threshold.

Story’s first Boston season wasn’t a triumph, as he hit .238/.303/.434 in 396 plate appearances and played in only 94 games due to a hairline fracture in his wrist and then a late-season heel contusion. He is the obvious choice to move back to his old shortstop position if Bogaerts leaves, but Story could potentially remain at second base if the Red Sox signed another big-name free-agent shortstop (such as Trea Turner, Carlos Correa or Dansby Swanson). Such a scenario may be less likely than Boston spending its biggest money at another position, but if any of the major shortstop are open to an opt-out clause after a couple of seasons a la Story, there could be room for the Red Sox to strike.

Keeping Story at second base might be Boston’s preference over moving him to shortstop and going with the respectable but unspectacular collection of internal second-base options. The Red Sox reached an early extension with Enrique Hernandez to keep him off the free-agent market, but Hernandez might ultimately offer more value as a regular center fielder. Even if Hernandez only sees limited time in the infield, Christian Arroyo and Rob Refsnyder — who hit very well after joining the Sox on a minors contract — figure to take a good chunk of the playing time. Another acquisition could be added to this group, and the Red Sox would also love to see former top prospect Jeter Downs get on track at the MLB level after struggling in his last two minor-league seasons.

Speaking of top prospects, Triston Casas made his major-league debut in 2022 and had a respectable .766 OPS over his first 95 PA in the Show. Casas figures to get the bulk of playing time at first base, with Hosmer on hand as a veteran complement since Hosmer isn’t likely to exercise his own opt-out clause. It’s something of an imperfect combination since both Casas and Hosmer are left-handed hitters, yet DH at-bats could be available if Martinez isn’t retained, or the Red Sox might end up parting ways with Hosmer if another roster upgrade opportunity presents itself.

After Vazquez was traded, the Reese McGuire-Connor Wong tandem delivered quality defense, and McGuire hit well at the plate. Boston might look to emulate the Astros, Guardians, Cardinals, Yankees and Rays as contenders who prioritize defense and game-calling over offense from the catcher’s position, but Bloom has said that the Red Sox will at least explore other options. A reunion with Vazquez might not be entirely out of the question, or the Sox might pursue a longer-term catcher like Athletics trade candidate Sean Murphy.

Devers is both the biggest sure thing on Boston’s roster heading into 2023, and also its biggest long-term question mark. The third baseman is coming off another strong offensive year, but he is also a free agent after the 2023 season, and (as with Bogaerts) extension talks this past spring didn’t yield much progress. Bloom has been emphatic that Devers isn’t a trade candidate this offseason or in the foreseeable future, and even if more contract negotiations don’t lead to a new deal, it is probable that the Red Sox wouldn’t consider swapping Devers until the trade deadline at the earliest.

Martinez was still an above-average (119 wRC+) force at the plate in 2022, yet his power numbers dropped off and he made a full-on transition to designated hitter, without a single game played in the field. With Martinez now entering his age-35 season, his time in Boston could be up, as the Red Sox may prefer to rotate multiple players through the DH spot, or give the bulk of DH time to a younger player with more upside.

The outfield is the most logical spot for a new addition, as Hernandez and Alex Verdugo are the only incumbents likely to see a lot of playing time. Franchy Cordero is a non-tender candidate, former top-100 prospect Jarren Duran has yet to establish himself either offensively or defensively in limited MLB playing time and Pham’s mutual option (like virtually all mutual options) isn’t likely to be exercised. Pham might be brought back on a smaller contract and the Red Sox won’t give up on Duran this soon, but one or even two proven regulars would go a long way towards adding more pop to the lineup.

There are plenty of interesting bats available in free agency, ranging from Judge at the top of the outfield market to other prominent names like Brandon Nimmo, Mitch Haniger, Joc Pederson and more. Teams like the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Giants also stand out as potential trade partners thanks to their surplus of outfield talent, plus any number of other possibilities could emerge given how other clubs adjust their rosters.

While the Red Sox lineup was lacking in power in 2022, it was still a pretty productive (ninth in runs scored) unit overall, even if some of that production will need to be replaced or upgraded. A different challenge is faced with the pitching staff, as the Sox didn’t get good results from either the rotation or bullpen, but have to address some potential key departures.

The advanced metrics didn’t much like Michael Wacha’s work last season, but his one-year, $7M contract ended up being a nice investment for the Red Sox thanks to Wacha’s 3.32 ERA over 127 1/3 innings. The ageless Rich Hill continued to post solid numbers even in his age-42 season, and another return to Boston is always a possibility, even if Hill has floated the idea of only pitching for part of the season, or pitching for a clear-cut contender.

Re-signing Wacha or Hill might just require one-year deals, but a larger commitment would be necessary to retain Eovaldi, even coming off an injury-hampered season. Eovaldi was limited to 109 1/3 innings and allowed some of the most hard contact of any pitcher in the league, but still delivered a 3.87 ERA. The right-hander was an All-Star as recently as 2021, yet Eovaldi’s checkered injury history and the fact that he’s entering his age-33 season might make the Sox wary of signing him to another longer-term contract.

Chris Sale is a cautionary case in this regard, as he has pitched only 48 1/3 regular-season innings over the life of his five-year, $145M extension (covering the 2020-24 seasons). The southpaw was limited to only 5 2/3 innings in 2022 due to a variety of injuries, including a stress fracture in his rib, a finger fractured by an Aaron Hicks comebacker and then a fractured wrist in a bicycle accident. While Sale is expected to be ready to go for spring training, the Sox can’t be sure exactly what they’re getting next season — just getting Sale back onto a mound would count as a win at this point, let alone getting him back to his old ace form.

Sale, Nick Pivetta and rookie Brayan Bello are penciled into three rotation spots, while a pair of other young arms in Josh Winckowski and Kutter Crawford could either be depth options or in competition for a job in spring training. The Red Sox figure to keep at least one spot open in the rotation for a competition, or to give Garrett Whitlock another look as a starter. However, acquiring two more starters to eat innings and pitch at the front of the rotation would make this entire group look a lot more capable of competing against the AL East’s big offenses. James Paxton may also be a factor if he (as expected) exercises his $4M player option in the wake of another injury-marred campaign, yet Paxton has pitched only 21 2/3 innings since the start of the 2020 season, and none at all in 2022 due to a lat strain while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

John Schreiber was one of the bright spots of the season, as the 28-year-old unexpectedly emerged as Boston’s most consistent reliever and a regular ninth-inning choice. Matt Barnes also got some save opportunities down the stretch, as after a rough start to the season and a stint on the 60-day injured list, Barnes returned from the IL in great form. Between these two, Whitlock (if he returns to the bullpen), and Ryan Brasier (who pitched much better than his 5.78 ERA would indicate), the Red Sox have some interesting pieces in the pen, even if more depth is certainly needed. It has never been Bloom’s style to invest too heavily in the pen, so expect more lower-level relief acquisitions rather than a pursuit of a big name like Edwin Diaz.

When the Red Sox finished in last place in 2020, Bloom responded with a big flurry of offseason moves, which provided enough upgrades for the Sox to finish only two games shy of a berth in the 2021 World Series. Of course, the 2021 team had Bogaerts, Devers and a resurgent Martinez and Eovaldi all firing on all cylinders, and Devers might be the only member of that group wearing a Boston uniform in 2023. As aggressive as Bloom has been in reshaping the Red Sox with under-the-radar or mid-tier transactions, some big swings may be necessary to get the Sox back into contention this time around.

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